If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. As a wise friend of mine once said: “Sometimes you have to swim with the sharks and try to kill some of them while you are there”.
Germany is one of the top footballing countries in the world. Current champions of the world, and teams like Bayern Munich are dominating European competition. If you want to test yourself against the best, you have to go to Germany.
So that’s what I did.
In early March, I spent around four days in Cologne. I was meant to stay a little longer but I unfortunately picked up a minor injury which meant I had to cut my stay short. I was not disheartened however, as I went to Germany and accomplished what I wanted.
It was a mad few days I’ll admit. I made a contact in Germany a few months previous (who turned out to be an absolute legend) ,who gave me the chance to go to Germany and train with his club. I had never even met this guy, and all the details surrounding the trip were a little sketchy. I wasn’t too sure where I was going to be staying each night, or even if I would actually get to train! It was a huge leap of faith, but sometimes you just have to trust in people with the same dream as you and just roll with it. Luckily, everything turned out just fine.
Let me take you through my experience.
I got into Cologne late Sunday night, around 9.30pm German time. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I had never been to Cologne before, I was relying on Google Maps, and although my German isn’t bad, it’s not the best. I got to the hostel at about 11.30pm. I was in a room with a Colombian lad and a Nigerian lad, both of whom kept to themselves. Hostels are a little weird: you don’t know a thing about the people you are with, but once you take the proper precautions, everything usually turns out just fine.
I woke the next morning and it hit me: later that evening, I was actually going to train with a German team on German soil. Was I nervous? Surprisingly not! I was just relishing the opportunity that I had, and I just wanted to get my boots on and get to business.
After exploring Cologne for a little while, it was time to get to the town where I would be training. I got to Köln Hauptbahnhof, where I would take the 90 minute train journey to Siegen.
I did have some bother trying to find the train station in Cologne though. Just as I was getting really frustrated and annoyed, I rounded a corner and there in front of me was Cologne Cathedral; an incredible sight.
I sat down and just took in its beauty. This is one of the reasons I play football: I’m hoping it can take me around the world, and I can see things otherwise I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see. It was a defining moment.
Anyway, I took the train to Siegen, where I was met at the train station by Charlie and his girlfriend, Eva. From there, it was back to his apartment where I would spend the night.
Siegen is a funny little place. It is sort of in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees. But I liked it. Coming from a very small place in Ireland, it felt a little like home. Except everybody spoke German of course!
After resting for a couple of hours, it was time for my first training session on German soil. Charlie came with me to show me where to go, got me my training gear from the kitman, and introduced me to the coach. I was training with the Sportfreunde Siegen U23 team, who play in the German Landesliga (6th Division). How was I feeling waiting in the dressing room? Yeah, I was nervous, of course I was. But I was ready, and I had nothing to lose.
Training started okay. The first thing, naturally enough, was the language. Everything was in German, and this was a huge adjustment for me. There was one guy on the team who spoke English, so he translated the instructions when required. We
did some passing and possession drills, which I did just okay at, but nothing special. We finished with a training game, and again, I didn’t do anything special. But I didn’t feel out of my depth, I felt comfortable, and this comfort increased as the session went on.
Once we got back to the apartment, it was just a case of eating and then going to bed. The plan for the next morning was to go to training with Charlie, and hope the coach let me train. As I said, sometimes you have just got to have a little faith…
The next morning was drizzly and foggy. As we walked to the stadium, yes I’ll admit, I was very nervous. Here I was, in Germany, about to play with players who played the game for a living. This was their career. This was how they made their money. This was serious stuff.
The Sportfreunde Siegen first team play in the Regionalliga (4th Division). They play in the same league as the Schalke U23 side, and only two weeks previous, had played in the Veltins Arena. They average about 1,200 a game, and everybody in Siegen loves their football. It’s their passion.
And here was I, looking to mix it up with these players. The more I think about it, the crazier it gets. I mean, I have seen very little playing time this year for UCD, so what was I doing even attempting to play with these guys?
Luckily I got the go ahead to train from the coach, and it was on. I sat in the dressing room before training, all sort of fears and doubts running through my head. But I made sure not to show it; I couldn’t show any weakness as I knew I would be eaten alive.
It was surreal being on the training pitch. Here I was, in Germany on a Tuesday morning, in a professional environment. But there was no time to get emotional or philosophical.
After a warm up, it was straight into a possession game. I made sure to keep it simple, and managed to complete my first few passes. I worked hard off the ball, closing down quickly and making it difficult for the player in possession. I made a few more passes, and my confidence started to go up and up. The play was quick, oh god it was quick. But I thought to myself “I can cope here. I’m not out of place”.
That game of possession gave me confidence, which I badly needed. The next drill we did was a shooting exercise. As a centre back, this is not my strong point. But although I misfired a couple of strikes, I actually scored a good percentage, with some decent finishes. The coach was even encouraging me. After one of my strikes I could hear “Gut Junge” which means “Good Boy”. That definitely gave me confidence.
We then did another drill where we had to hit a cross-field ball to the winger, then get in the box and get on the end of the cross. I scored a couple, but missed a few too.
Funny story: When I was hitting the cross-field ball, about 40 yards, I messed it up badly. I tried again. Completely sliced it. In fairness to the boys, they kept saying “No panic no panic” but luckily I managed it on the third go. It was one of the moments you want the ground to open up and swallow you, but I just got on with it and didn’t let it affect me. To be honest, I saw the funny side!
That was it for the morning session. As I was sitting in the dressing room afterwards, one of the coaches came in and asked would I be available for the afternoon session. Of course I would! I was afraid of being told to leave the morning session after 10 minutes so to get asked back to train again was unbelievable.
The afternoon session began with a team meeting for the players, which I could not attend. But then it was time for some fitness work inside, just a basic circuit, nothing crazy. I was well able for it, due to all those hours spent in UCD’s gym!
After that, it was onto the training pitch. After a passing drill, it was into a 5 v 5 game.
I have never played in a game so quick. The intensity, the speed of thought, the loudness. It was eye-opening. But I completed my passes and made my tackles. It was unbelievable though: welcome to Germany.
Unfortunately in that game, I picked up a slight ankle injury. Nothing major, but there was some swelling. Back at the apartment, Charlie was going to make some calls and arrange some trials in Düsseldorf with some Oberliga (5th Divsion) teams for the rest of the week. But I was done. I knew my ankle wasn’t right, and I couldn’t risk aggravating it, what with the Crowley Cup coming up for UCD.
So I booked a hostel for the night, and got the train back up to Cologne. I can tell you, I was a bag of mixed emotions as I made that 90 minute journey late at night. Had I really just trained in a professional environment? Had I actually trained with a team in Germany? Not only that, but did I really not embarrass myself? Because I’ll be honest, that was my biggest fear going over there: that I would be completely out of my depth and absolutely disgrace myself. But thankfully that did not turn out to be the case.
After spending the night in a hostel with 8 Chinese businessmen, and sleeping on my coat (I wasn’t paying €4.50 for bed clothes!), it was time to explore Cologne a little more. My ankle was absolutely killing me, but I didn’t know when I would be back to this beautiful city again so I was going to make the most of it.
I got the tram out to the RheinEnergie Stadion, home of 1. FC Köln. The peace and tranquillity was sensational: in front of the stadium is a huge open green area. The sun was absolutely splitting the stones, so for half an hour, I just sat on a bench in front of the stadium and took it all in.
I thought about how far I had come. Only 3 years ago, I was without a team, having just gone through two hip operations. I was playing 5 a-side games whenever I could, and training hard by myself. It was just hard to believe I was in Germany, having just got my first taste of what it is like to be a professional footballer. Calmness engulfed me for that half hour, as I was away from everything and everyone, simply left with my own thoughts…
That night I got a flight back to Dublin, and my experience in Germany was over. My few days in Germany had given me much food for thought.
Just to clear things up, I did not get offered a contract with Sportfreunde Siegen, nor did I light training up. Thought I’d clear that up as a lot of people asked me that when I returned! But I didn’t stand out in a bad way, I integrated well with the rest of the players, and held my own. I felt good enough for that level.
However, it was okay for me to take part in one day of training, and do well. But if I had stayed a second day, how would I have done? Mentally more than anything, I was shattered after those two training sessions. At that level, you need to bring the intensity each and every day. You can’t afford to slack off or take it easy. There are no hiding places. Every day requires 100% focus and concentration, and this is what I believe makes the difference between good players and great players.
In terms of ability, I could do everything that the other players could do: I was as fit, as fast, as strong, and technically capable. But the professional game requires a certain mentality, and I’m not sure if I have that, yet. I’m just being honest here. Professional players need to have incredible mental strength, and that is something I’m still learning. In that unforgiving environment, your confidence will be crushed every single day, and you need to handle that and rise above it.
I’m getting there, and it is something I’m working on. With my past, there is no doubt I have mental strength, but from what I saw in Germany, the professional game is a different level. But I know I’ll get there as I mature on the pitch, and of course in life.
Will I return to Germany to play one day? I hope so. As most of you know, I’ve recently accepted a soccer scholarship to play for 2 years at a University in America. This was a big decision. Having done well in Germany, I was tempted to go back in June and try my luck at getting a contract in the Oberliga, and working my way up. But I believe things happen for a reason, and once the American opportunity presented itself I had no choice but to go for it. I can go to Germany later, but the chance to play full-time college soccer in the States was only going to come around once.
Two years of training full-time and playing in a competitive league is only going to benefit me, and I feel as if it will prepare me well for the next level. I will be 23 when I graduate from my masters in America, so one of my plans would be to return to Germany and try to make it as high up on the ladder as possible.
But as always, who knows what the future holds? I love the German language, culture, and country in general, so I would love to go back. However, I always keep an open mind take my opportunities where I can get them!
My short stay in Germany made me stronger mentally, and gave me the confidence that I am capable of playing at that level. I was pushed outside my comfort zone, but I handled it, which was important to prove to myself.
For now, I’m focusing on using every day to improve. I’m working on improving technically, tactically, and of course, physically. I’m readying myself for the challenge that lies ahead in America, and I can’t wait to get there and get to work. But I will always have one eye on Germany, and I hope some day I will get to kick a ball about on German soil again!
Just a brief mention on the guy that made all of this possible. He stuck his neck out and put his reputation on the line for me. He gave me food and a place to stay, and expected nothing in return. He did all of this for a virtual stranger. The kindness of people can be truly amazing at times. Even his girlfriend, Eva, picked me up from Siegen train station and drove to the apartment. Honestly, what can I say, it would restore your faith in mankind. I can never repay him for the opportunity he gave me, and it was unbelievable to get an insight into his life. Also, his stories about his search for a professional contract in Europe were eye-opening.
Wherever I am in the world, Charlie and those close to him will always be welcome. I guess we are simply an Irish lad and an American lad, both with the same dream…
Thanks for reading.
Work hard and never ever give up on your dreams.